It hasn't been a quick or overnight rise but Graham Zusi has steadily developed into one of MLS's elite players.
His form this season has earned him multiple call-ups for the USMNT, a trip to the MLS All-Star Game, and in the discussion for MLS MVP; but it hasn't been all smooth sailing for the Florida native.
Graham Zusi was not considered the most talented in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft but he was valued as player who could be solid contributor in MLS. He was a prospect that was relatively low risk but lacked the possible high reward of other players.
Buzz Carrick wrote about Zusi heading into the draft and what he saw as his weaknesses.
"My two criticisms of Zusi’s game coming out of college were speed and defense."
Carrick says that these two concerns have proven to be wrong.
"Zusi has a really quick first step and short burst, especially with the ball at his feet, which is more than enough to separate and beat people. He’s also got a quick soccer mind, which is something you can’t teach."
"Certainly I think he’s shown more than enough defensive qualities in MLS. He wouldn’t have made it to the National team without it."
Zusi started attracting the attention of MLS teams while playing for the University of Maryland with a breakout season in 2006 with 11 goals and 7 assists. He followed that up with a great 2007 season and scored the game winning goal in the 2008-09 NCAA Division I title game.
He was drafted 23rd overall by the then Kansas City Wizards in 2009. It would prove to be a very successful draft for KC who also selected Matt Besler ninth.
Zusi started his career with KC by playing 13 matches during the 2009 season, earning one assist in five starts. The midfielder continued to progress in the next season with more appearances (19 matches) and scoring his first career MLS goal.
The turning point in Zusi's career was the 2011 season in which he became a regular starter and an integral part of the club's initial season as Sporting Kansas City. He had seven assists and five goals as KC won the Eastern Conference regular season title and just missed out on making the MLS Cup final.
Zusi's solid and steady improvement each season didn't go unnoticed by USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann. The KC midfielder was rewarded with a spot in the 2012 January camp, which is a chance for younger players to get experience and make their case for future matches.
He responded to the opportunity with a solid performance against Venezuela and the game winning goal against Panama. While he did show signs of a future starter for the USMNT, Zusi would not play in another international match until August.
Zusi started the 2012 MLS season as one of the key players for Sporting KC. The team thrived in the opening months with a 7-0-0 start with stellar defensive play and timely goals.
There was the inevitable struggles for Sporting in the summer months but the team fought threw it and are currently in the midst of another long unbeaten streak (10 matches). Zusi's season has mirrored that of Sporting's as the team is 12-1-3 (W-L-T) when he has a goal or an assist.
August was a very busy month for the former Terrapin who played in six matches. The month started out with a win at New England and then a dramatic victory over Seattle to claim the 2012 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup trophy. Things continued in the right direction when Zusi was a second half sub for the USA's historic 1-0 victory at Mexico.
Zusi's consistent performances for club and country earned him a call-up for World Cup Qualifiers in September. He didn't play in the first match at Jamaica but had an immediate impact in the second at Columbus Crew stadium. Zusi earned rave reviews for his play with his ability to strike from long range, provide service on set pieces, and his creativity on the pitch.
"Zusi did a nice job in the Jamaica home game. He was effective. He worked well and he showed the composure and the creativity that you want in a player," former USA international Marcelo Balboa said.
Few would have realistically expected this from Zusi, when he was drafted 23rd my KC in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft but in every season there's been improvement. Carrick says that Zusi was not projected to be a future USMNT player.
"The progress and advancement Zusi has made is nothing short of remarkable. I thought he could be a good MLS player, but not an MVP candidate and national teamer," Carrick said.
The future for Zusi is unknown and so is his ceiling as a player. He's a strong MLS MVP candidate with five goals and 14 assists through 32 matches and an injury to Landon Donovan will likely allow him to start at least one, if not both, crucial World Cup Qualifiers in in October.
ESPNFC.com's Jeff Carlisle believes that the next step for Zusi is a solid performance in World Cup Qualifying match on the road.
"Zusi's a guy that has checked off all the boxes this year in terms of his development at the international level. He got some good time during the January camp, now he's proven himself at a World Cup Qualifier (vs Jamaica) and the next challenge for him is in an away game," he said.
The United States will face Antigua & Barbuda on Friday, October 12 (6 PM, beIN Sport) and host Guatemala (at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park) on Tuesday, October 16 (6 PM, ESPN2).